This piece seems somehow blessed — almost destined to be written — although its two American creators, writer James Agee and composer Samuel Barber, had not yet met when Barber chose to set Agee’s words.
In 1946, Agee was “interested in early childhood memories . . . [and] greatly interested in improvisatory writing . . . i.e., with a kind of parallel to improvisation in jazz.” He drew on his own memories of lying in bed one hot evening in the South, drifting asleep as all around him the sounds of family life, the city and summer wash over him. He remembered that the first draft “took possibly an hour and a half.” As was his habit, he made few changes in later revisions. A year later, Barber was searching for a text to set for soprano and orchestra, when he came upon Agee’s poem:
My musical response that summer of 1947 was immediate and intense. I think I must have composed Knoxville within a few days.
When Agee and Barber later met and became friends, it became plain why Agee’s childhood memories had so profoundly affected the composer. Barber remembered:
The summer evening he describes in his native Southern town reminded me so much of similar evenings when I was a child at home. I found out after setting this that Mr. Agee and I are the same age, and the year he described was 1915, when we were both five.
The better they got to know each other, the more shared memories they discovered. The sound of trolley bells, grown-ups sitting on the porch talking softly, the heat and soft light of a Southern dusk. These things are evocative for anyone brought up in the South, which is perhaps why some of the finest interpreters of this music have taken it so much to heart. Eleanor Steber, for whom the piece was written, grew up in West Virginia. “That was my childhood,” she wrote. Barber’s close friend Leontyne Price may have said it best:
As a Southerner, it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and father . . . [and] my home town. . . . You can smell the South in it.
This piece has another quality that is not specific to the South, nor even to America. It speaks to all of us, including this writer sitting in rainy Edinburgh, Scotland. As Barber perceptively wrote of Agee’s verse, “[Knoxville] expresses a child’s feeling of loneliness, wonder and lack of identity in that marginal world between twilight and sleep.”
Svend-Einar Brown ©2007
In the summer of 1809, Napoleon’s army occupied Vienna for the second time in four years. Beethoven, unlike most of his friends and patrons, remained in the city, and he passed the miserable season with little contact with the outside world. He spent some of that time finishing the Fifth Piano Concerto, his final and most substantial work in the genre. It would be the only concerto he did not perform himself, given the deteriorated state of his hearing by the time of the 1811 premiere. Beethoven’s early symphonies and concertos built upon the classical traditions of Haydn and Mozart. The work with which Beethoven eclipsed all symphonic precedents (at least in terms of sheer size) was the Symphony No. 3 in E flat, from 1803, nicknamed “Eroica” (Italian for “heroic”). The Piano Concerto No. 5, also in the key of E flat, is in many ways a sibling to the “Eroica” Symphony; in the case of the concerto, Beethoven had no part in the nickname—“Emperor” came later from an English publisher—but both works share a monumental posture and triumphant spirit. Beethoven dedicated the concerto to the Archduke Rudolph, the youngest brother of the Austrian emperor Franz. More than just a patron, Rudolph was a piano student of Beethoven’s, and the two maintained a warm friendship until the composer’s death.
The “Emperor” Concerto begins at a climax: the orchestra proclaims the home key with a single chord, and the piano leaps in with a virtuosic cadenza. The ensemble holds back its traditional exposition of the thematic arguments until the pianist completes three of these fanciful solo flights, the last connecting directly to the start of the movement’s primary theme. It is a remarkable structure for a concerto, with an assurance of victory, as it were, before the battle lines have been drawn. Even once the piano returns, the movement continues in a symphonic demeanor, forgoing a stand-alone cadenza in favor of solo escapades that integrate deftly into the forward progress of the form.
The slow movement enters in the luminous and unexpected key of B major with a simple theme, first stated as a chorale for muted strings. The piano plays a decorated version over pizzicato accompaniment, and woodwinds later intone the same theme, supported by piano filigree and off-beat string pulses. The transition back to the home key for the finale is brilliantly understated: The held note B drops to B-flat, providing a smooth lead-in for the piano to introduce the principal theme of the Rondo. The motive’s upward arpeggio generates extra propulsion through its unexpected climax on an accented off-beat, adding a dash of Haydnesque humor to a score that has all the power and majesty of Beethoven in his prime.
Aaron Grad ©2013